It’s back-to-school season, and my mind turns (as it often does, including the hinting I did here) to somewhat academic questions. Such as: what is genre? And what does it mean to be a genre writer?
One reason I ask is because I consider myself a genre writer, but in doing so I’m using a very specific and perhaps non-intuitive definition of the word. Genre in and of itself is a reasonably easy concept to understand. It’s a way of categorizing similar kinds of work, in terms of their subject matter. Romance is one genre. Westerns are another. Fairy tales. True crime. Domestic drama. Espionage. And so on and so on.
They’re just labels, yes, but lest anyone think that all labels are arbitrary and thus unimportant, allow me to relate a personal anecdote. From the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2014, I took part in a blogging club (via a different, anonymous blog where I mused about popular culture and joked about how slack my day job at the time was, hence the need for anonymity) where there was a weekly assignment to review one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. One week the chosen movie was Being John Malkovich. In my review I made a passing reference to it being a science fiction movie. I later read another blogger’s review and she confessed that she really didn’t get the movie, but once she noted that I called it science fiction, she had a slightly better handle on it. The point being that identifying the genre of a story helps set people’s expectations of the story, which in turn can (sometimes, for certain people) make a big difference in the experience of said story.
So, I think about genre quite a bit in terms of how other people would react to my own work. Partly that’s just on the off chance that my writing might come up in conversation with someone, and I’d like to have a ready answer if they ask “What kind of stories do you write?” Largely, it’s because I tend to write for open calls which are organized around genre-specific themes. In the former case, it’s quick and easy to say “mostly genre stuff” as shorthand for the Big Three of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and all of their attendant subgenres. And in the latter, those Big Three all seem to coexist pretty closely in the market listings and Facebook groups and whatnot.
It does seem odd, though, that the Big Three is taken for granted as such. I can’t think of any other triumvirate of genres that seem so logically grouped together. If someone told me they write mainly cowboy stories, spy stories, and caveman stories, I wouldn’t think that was odd per se, but I would also assume they more or less stumbled into that combination, as opposed to following the example of numerous other authors I could name off the top of my head who write in those three genres. Whereas in addition to many authors who are known as sci-fi writers, or fantasy writers, or horror writers, there are almost as many who go back and forth between two of those genres or amongst all three.
Of course arguably the main thing that sets SF/F/H apart from WWII stories or police procedurals or regency novels or whathaveyou is the fact that my beloved Big Three incorporate many elements that do not and never have existed. Free-thinking computers and arcane magicks and immortal monsters are pure flights of fancy, utterly imaginary. However unrealistic or improbable a shootout or a love affair may be, they’re still working with raw material lifted from reality.
And then on the flip side, it’s a bit odd that SF/F/H are considered three distinct genres (my shorthand of being a “genre writer” notwithstanding) when it would be perfectly accurate to lump them all together as fantasy, concerned with things which are not real. Yet the distinctions are pretty universally recognized. Science-fiction’s version of things which never were leans toward what-might-be, as opposed to fantasy’s can’t-be. We can conceive of laser weapons, interstellar spaceships, lifelike robots and mental telepathy, whereas magic spells and dragons and unicorns are essentially impossible by our understanding of the universe. Science-fiction looks to the future, even when set in the present or an alternate past, while fantasy hearkens back to our origins as superstitious folk with more abstract imagination than empirical knowledge.
Horror seems like a strange bedfellow with SF/F, and again seems like something which could be absorbed into either. The Terminator, Night of Living Dead and Frankenstein are science fiction, and Dracula and IT are fantasy. Then again, Psycho is neither, Jaws is only sci-fi if you use the term extremely loosely, and some people might argue that The Exorcist is about extant phenomena and could plausibly happen. Perhaps it will suffice to say that horror gets lumped in with SF/F because a fair amount of it involves imaginary elements, but also for a couple of other reasons. One is that it tends to appeal to a niche audience, and for whatever reason there does happen to be an overlap – again, not perfect, but also again, a fair amount – in people who enjoy stories about robots, or elves, or scary stuff. Clearly you can count me among those kind of people.
And another reason might have something to do with the time continuum I invoked above. If a story contains unreal elements but is also set in the future, our brains can rationalize that, particularly if the unreality feels like something that could develop over time, and thus we get sci-fi. If a story contains unreal elements but is also set in the past, our brains can rationalize that as well, particularly if the unreality feels at the very least like something people used to believe in, hence classic fantasy. But if a story contains unreal elements and is set in the present, that in and of itself is unsettling and disturbing. It’s a depiction of the world outside our window, and yet it’s not, and that uncanny valley between the two gives rise to fear. A dragon, gigantic and fire-breathing and indifferent to human suffering, should be the most terrifying thing in the world, but within the confines of a medieval setting it’s simply part of an adventure. Whereas a tiny gremlin on the wing of an airplane is the stuff of nightmares. So horror along with sci-fi and fantasy helps to triangulate the combination of the imaginary with settings in time, and a trinity by association is born.
I recognize this isn’t a perfect theory, as there are certainly happy non-horror stories which take the present world and incorporate impossible science or fantastical whimsy. My favorite genre is superhero stories, which are pretty much all of the above, sci-fi and fantasy and even horror ideas all swirled together in a colorful, chaotic morality play in a world without limits which is somehow always the status quo here and now. And it’s precisely that no-holds-barred, anything goes spirit which can see a genius inventor and a mythological god team up to take on an alien sorcerer that makes the superhero genre my favorite. I love all the components separately, and love them even more in aggregate.
So calling myself a genre writer – which really means being a writer in at least three or four different genres, interconnected in ways which are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so – has always felt right. And if I really put my mind to it, as here, I can try to map it all out and make sense of it. But do I really know what I’m talking about? Join me here for future posts in which I peer into the mists for the elusive answer to that very question! (Preview spoiler: probably not. Probably I have no idea what I’m talking about.)